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Timor - History

Portuguese and Dutch traders made the first western contact with Timor in the early 16th century. When the first traders and missionaries reached the coast of Timor in 1515, the island was organized in small states, ruled by two kingdoms, Sorbian and Belos, who practiced animism. Islam, a religion that is still prevalent in Indonesia, has never reached Timor. Even Buddhism, extensively practiced in Java, especially in the 13th century, did not prevail. Oecussi-Ambeno was the first place on which the Portuguese established themselves at their arrival. This is the reason why the district is considered the cradle of Timor-Leste. In 1556, a group of Dominican brothers established the first village in Lifau, six kilometers to the west of Pante Macassar.

Sandalwood and spice traders as well as missionaries maintained sporadic contact with the island until 1642, when the Portuguese moved into Timor in strength. In 1702, Lifau became the capital of the colony when it received the first governor from Lisbon. It held the status until 1767, when the Portuguese decided to transfer the capital to Dili, as a result of the frequent attacks by the Dutch forces. During the third quarter of the 16th century, the first Portuguese Dominican priests arrived in Timor and started developing a progressive religious influence, even as the Portuguese domination was still being settled. Culture developed in an opposite direction to that of today's Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra and of the coasts of Kalimantan and Sulawesi, where Islam was the dominant religion. In 1651, the Dutch invaded Kupang in the Western end of the Island of Timor, and took control of half of its territory.

By the 17th century Timor was disputed between the Netherlands and Portugal. The two colonial powers divided the island; the Netherlands took the western half, which became part of the Dutch East Indies and later Indonesia; the eastern half (and Oecussi-Ambeno) became a Portuguese colony in 1702. It was only in 1859, with the Treaty of Lisbon, that Portugal and the Netherlands divided the island: West Timor was given to the Dutch, with its colonial seat in Kupang, and Timor-Leste became Portuguese, with its seat in Dili. Portugal recognized Oecussi-Ambeno as a Portuguese enclave surrounded by Dutch territory.

The book "Portuguese Possessions in Oceania" by Affonso de Castro, an infantry captain in the Portuguese Army who served as governor of East Timor (present-day Timor-Leste) from 1859 to 1863, is one of the earliest historical studies of this former Portuguese colony. The work is in two parts. The first part examines the history of East Timor from its occupation by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and recounts Queen Mena's conversion to Christianity and the disputes with the Dutch over the region. In the second part of the study, the author examines the colony’s physical, administrative, and economic conditions, including the issue of the border, which was settled by a treaty between the Portuguese and the Dutch in 1860, dividing the island into two halves.

The Portuguese and the Dutch, based at the western end of the island in Kupang, battled for influence until agreeing to the present-day borders in 1906. Imperial Japan occupied East Timor from 1942-45. During the Second World War, the Allies (Australians and Dutch), aware of the strategic position of Timor, established positions in the territory and got involved in bitter fighting with the Japanese forces. Some tens of thousands of Timorese lost their lives while fighting side-by-side with the Allies. In 1945, the Portuguese administration was restored in Timor-Leste.

Portugal resumed colonial authority over East Timor in 1945 after the Japanese defeat in World War II. Upon Indonesian independence in 1945, Western Timor was integrated into its territory.

In 1908, Portugal divided the Timorese territory into 15 military commands, responsible for the decentralization of the civil administration. One decade later, the Portuguese metropolis created the first civil circumscriptions, which divided military power, since it had become superfluous after the signing of the Arbitral Sentence in 1914 with the Netherlands. The first municipality - Dili - was only created in 1940. After that, many other municipalities and circumscriptions coexisted, until the last circumscription (Oecussi-Ambeno) was given the status of municipality in August 1973.

By the mid-1960s, the Portuguese administration was organized into 11 municipalities, namely Bobonaro, Cova-Lima, Liquiça, Ermera, Dili, Ainaro, Same, Manatuto, Baucau, Viqueque and Lautem; and one circumscription, the enclave of Oecussi-Ambeno. The borders of these divisions were similar to those of present-day districts; however, there are three differences: the municipality of Aileu was separated from Dili during the last years of the Portuguese administration; and, under the Indonesian administration, the subdistrict of Turiscai, formerly a part of the Ainaro district, was transferred to Manufahi. As a result, Hato Udo was taken from Manufahi and given to Ainaro. Among all of the districts in Timor-Leste, Viqueque is the largest, with an area of 884 km², and Dili the smallest (364 km²).

Between 1945 and June 1974, the Indonesian Government, in compliance with International Law, affirmed at the United Nations and to the outside world that it had no territorial ambitions towards East Timor. Based on Resolution 1514 (XV) from December 14, 1960, Timor-Leste was considered by the United Nations a non-autonomous territory under Portuguese administration. From 1962 until 1973, the UN General Assembly approved successive resolutions, recognizing Timor-Leste’s right to self-determination, as well as of the other two existing Portuguese colonies. In Portugal, Salazar’s regime (and, afterward, Marcelo Caetano’s) refused to recognize that right, stating that Timor-Leste was a Portuguese province equal to any other.

East Timor remained under Portuguese rule until 1974-75 when the Portuguese colonial empire disintegrated. The April Revolution (April 25, 1974), which restored democracy in Portugal, consecrated the respect for the right to self-determination of the Portuguese colonies. Following the military coup in Lisbon in April 1974, Portugal began a rapid and disorganized decolonization process in most of its overseas territories, including East Timor. The East Timorese hoped that the collapse of Portuguese authority would end colonial rule. The two main parties favouring independence - the Uniao Democratica de Timor (UDT) and Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste (FRETILIN) - bitterly opposed each other and the territory gradually subsided into civil war.

In order to promote the exercise of that right, on May 13, a Committee for the Self-determination of East Timor was installed in Dili. The Portuguese Government authorized the creation of political parties, and as a result, partisan organizations emerged in Timor-Leste: the UDT (Timorese Democratic Union) called for "Timor’s integration in a Portuguese-speaking community"; the ASDT (Timorese Social-Democratic Association), which would later change its name to FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), supported the right to independence; and the APODETI (Popular Democratic Association of Timor) suggested “integration with autonomy within the Indonesian community”.

In 1975, with the dissolution of the Portuguese colonial empire, local liberation movements increased. In May 1975, the authorities in Lisbon presented a project to the main Timorese parties and, after hearing them, a law was published on July 11 that foresaw the nomination of a Portuguese High Commissioner. This same law expected the election of a People’s Assembly in October of the same year, in order to establish a political status. The diploma foresaw a three-year transitional period.

A local program of progressive decolonization was already taking place since January 1975. As part of this program, elections were held in the Lautem district for regional administrative leadership. The result of the first popular consultation made clear APODETI’s lack of support and the Timorese people’s refusal to accept integration by democratic means. Long before those regional elections were held, it was quite obvious for any independent observer visiting the territory that the overwhelming majority of the Timorese rejected integration into Indonesia. Cultural differences were one of the main reasons.

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Page last modified: 28-09-2016 19:57:07 ZULU